Monday, July 12, 2010

Summer Bonus

Put down the flamethrowers, I’m not talking about money.

In the summer, with fewer people on campus and some of the committees that usually fill my calendar on hold until September, I’ve discovered an unexpected bonus: time for wide-ranging, unstructured conversation.

I don’t just mean shooting the breeze, either. I mean the kind of discussions in which people have the time and implied permission to go off-agenda and really explore a topic.

Last week I had a long and unexpectedly meandering conversation with a colleague in which we gradually realized that the college was missing something pretty fundamental, and not all that hard to implement. It wasn’t part of the agenda for the original meeting; I don’t think I’d heard it discussed before at all. But since we both had time to actually follow ideas where they led, we were able to move from the planned topic to an unplanned topic to an actual (potential) solution. We had time to explore, and complete, a thought.

That’s hard to do during the regular semesters. Then, meetings are six to a day, and they need to be pretty tightly planned. Just getting all the relevant people together in a room takes planning; with time at a premium, we have to get to the issue quickly. That’s not to say that the meetings are entirely free of tangents -- we are academics, after all -- but the tangents are more a form of social glue (or comic relief) than real exploration.

With the faculty away and with staff and administrators staggering vacations, though, the summer is a different animal. I wouldn’t call it slow, but it’s less fast. There’s time to ask the second question, and even the third.

Some people try to achieve the same thing with retreats, but in my experience, even the better retreats fall victim to too many people in the room. With that many people competing for floorspace, you still don’t have time for free-floating discussion. The most effective venue for the free-range conversation is two people; three can work if you’re really, really lucky. Go beyond that, and it’s just not the same.

I used to think that the best breakthroughs came from individual reflection. But experience, and blogging, have taught me that the best breakthroughs come from unpredictable interaction. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I say it; I’ve actually surprised myself in conversations. In formal meetings, that doesn’t work, but when there’s time to hash something out one-on-one, the openness can lead to good surprises.

I’ll call that my summer bonus.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found the same thing? Have you found a setting in which your best breakthroughs happen most often?